Property owners remove patriotic memorial built by locals

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A patriotic controversy started brewing this week in a small retirement community in Wimauma after the property owners removed a memorial built by residents and dedicated to veterans and first responders.

Neighbors in Little Manatee Springs, many of whom are veterans and former law enforcement, describe themselves as being very patriotic.

If you cruise through the neighborhood you'll find American flags in almost every yard.

A few of the residents thought they found the perfect spot to bring their patriotism together: On top of an existing concrete slab overlooking a lake.

In July, some of them spent their own money to build an elaborate memorial with new fencing, railings, benches, and flags for America, Florida, and first responders.

"It took us over four months to put it together. We're a bunch of old guys in the heat and the summertime. It was kind of brutal," said J.T. Haley, who spearheaded the project. "We just wanted to honor everybody because all over the country this day and time, it just seems to be disappearing."

By the time it was finished, neighbors loved it.

"To see this and the flag poles, it means a lot to me. It was pretty to look at. It made you feel good," said Jerry Watkins, who is a Vietnam War veteran.

This week, however, the property owners decided to remove the memorial.

Neighbors watched and recorded as a crew took it apart piece by piece, plank by plank and pole by pole.

"I felt insulted. I really did. I'm a Vietnam vet. I just felt was an insult," Watkins said.

"It's just a bad feeling in the park right now. And it's a shame because it started off being a wonderful feeling," added Haley.

The community manager, Carmen Sanchez, can be seen in the video overseeing the removal of the memorial. FOX 13 asked why the company, Hometown America Communities, ordered it to be taken down and she said, "unfortunately we can't comment but you're welcome to reach out to our company."

The CEO for Hometown America Communities, which is based in Illinois, told FOX 13 the memorial was "illegally built by residents without notifying the company" and that Hillsborough County inspectors deemed it unsafe. The CEO said the company plans on rebuilding something similar in as close to the same spot as possible.

The removal of the memorial left the concrete base, upon which a gazebo used to sit before it was torn down several years ago, without railings.

In response to a question about how safe the base is now, with a drop-off on three sides, the CEP said he was unaware of that issue but would look into it.